Barbara Gaines announces plans to step down as Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2023

Since founding the company in 1986, prolific director Gaines has paved the way for the Theater to become a world-class cultural institution with its three-theater campus on Navy Pier and wide-reaching artistic, educational, and community impact

Chicago—March 1, 2022—Thirty-six years after founding Chicago Shakespeare Theater and paving the way for the Tony Award-winning company to become one of the nation’s leading theaters, Barbara Gaines has announced her plan to step down as Artistic Director in 2023. The Theater’s Board of Directors will commence a comprehensive search process for new artistic leadership to carry Chicago Shakespeare into the future.

“Barbara Gaines has had an indelible impact on the global cultural landscape as the founder and Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare—her vision, passion, and tenacious spirit are unequaled,” said Chicago Shakespeare Board of Directors Chair Mark S. Ouweleen. “Her audacious impulse to build a Shakespeare theater for Chicago has blossomed into a world-class theater that continues to raise the bar for artistry and service.”

Barbara Gaines shared in a statement today: 

“As I write this note, it is with unending gratitude to all of you who have joined me in creating a theater that is—I believe—like no other and (as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare) ‘not of an age, but for all time.’

After thirty-six joyous years, I’ve decided to step down as Artistic Director of Chicago Shakespeare in 2023. I feel it’s time now for the Theater to welcome new artistic leadership. Change can infuse a new and bold creative energy, as our work to imaginatively explore Shakespeare alongside other playwrights continues and evolves in new ways to meet our changing world.

When I founded the Theater in 1986, I hoped it would be a gift to the city of Chicago. Nineteen artists gathered on the rooftop of the Red Lion Pub in Lincoln Park in what would become the company’s inaugural production and spoke aloud the first words of Henry V: ‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.’

It was that invention—that idea of what Chicago Shakespeare could become—which ignited incomparable creativity over the years and grew into an organization that is and will continue to be a beacon of light shining throughout our city. It’s a torch that brings together the talents of artists from Chicago and across the globe to our home on Navy Pier. My mission over these many years has been to fill the world with the humanity of Shakespeare—a writer who understands the immediacy of being human and gives us all the chance to delve into the mysteries of life. And that’s exactly what I believe we’ve been able to do together. I am immensely proud of all that we’ve done and deeply inspired by the thrilling possibilities ahead for Chicago Shakespeare in the decades to come. 

To be clear, this is far from goodbye…we still have much to accomplish together this year. Artistry will be filling our stages this spring, and we’ll be sharing our plans for the upcoming season soon. More than ever, our city needs art to fill people’s lives with hope, beauty, courage—and with radiant light. That has always been the personal human connection that feeds my soul. Here’s to the brightest future.”

–Barbara Gaines, Artistic Director, Carl and Marilynn Thoma Chair

With Gaines’ first production on the rooftop in 1986, Chicago Shakespeare was born. The fledging company took up residence at the Ruth Page Dance Center in 1987, and entered a period of rapid, exponential growth as Gaines joined forces with Executive Director Criss Henderson. With the Theater’s move to its flagship campus on Navy Pier in 1999, the company was established as the premier theater it is known as today. In addition to producing a year-round season, Chicago Shakespeare has served more than two million students and teachers through its nationally recognized arts-in-education programs and has engaged with Chicagoans citywide through creative community programs like the free Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks tour. 

Executive Director Criss Henderson said, “Barbara’s relentless enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s storytelling galvanized the city into rallying around this vision and this company in a way that is simply unprecedented. The opportunity to nurture and grow this organization together over the past three decades has been an honor—and I will be forever grateful for her partnership.”

Hailed as a leading director of Shakespeare, Barbara Gaines, 75, is known for her distinctly populist approach to classic texts and for imbuing her work with clarity and depth of feeling for the human condition. Over three decades with Chicago Shakespeare, Gaines has directed sixty productions, including thirty-three Shakespeare titles and six world premieres. She is widely recognized for her ability to reexamine and reimagine the playwright’s lesser staged plays, including notable interpretations of Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, and King John, among others. As the cornerstone production of Shakespeare 400 Chicago, the 2016 international celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy, she created a world premiere history cycle, Tug of War—which featured six plays performed in two parts. The Guardian’s Michael Billington called it “a bold and magnificent venture…this is Shakespeare staged with a purpose, and further proof that his history plays speak to us more urgently than ever.” Gaines has also prominently directed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on-Avon (UK), Lyric Opera of Chicago, and The Old Globe in San Diego. 

The late Terry Teachout, esteemed The Wall Street Journal critic, wrote, “Barbara Gaines is, in the very best sense of the word, a populist, a true believer in the power of the classics to speak directly to contemporary audiences when staged with sharp immediacy and infectious gusto… She is also sure enough of her own talents to make room for equally talented colleagues, and it says much about her generous, enlightened artistic leadership. She is a great teacher whose classroom is the stage. Yet of all the lessons I’ve learned in the house that Barbara Gaines built, the one I treasure most was the very first one she taught me, which is that the great American theater doesn’t stop on the banks of the Hudson River. More and more, that’s where it starts.”

Among her many honors and achievements are the 2008 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre; the prestigious Honorary OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in recognition of her contributions strengthening British-American cultural relations; the Chicago History Museum’s Making History Award recognizing extraordinary contributions to Chicago; and Joseph Jefferson Awards for Best Production (Hamlet, Cymbeline, King Lear, and The Comedy of Errors), and for Best Director (Cymbeline, King Lear, and The Comedy of Errors). She is prominently featured as one of twenty women in renowned artist Kerry James Marshall’s mural Rushmore at the Chicago Cultural Center. Gaines has also received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Birmingham (UK), the University Club of Chicago’s Cultural Award, and the Public Humanities Award from the Illinois Humanities Council. 

Board of Directors Chair Mark S. Ouweleen added, “Barbara’s legacy will live on as we bring in new artistic leadership to take us into the next act of the extraordinary story of Chicago Shakespeare.”

Barbara Gaines Directing History at Chicago Shakespeare Theater:

Henry V (1986)

Troilus and Cressida (1987)

Antony and Cleopatra (1988)

The Tale of Cymbeline (1989)

Shakespeare's Greatest Hits (1989)

Shakespeare's Greatest Hits II (1991)

King John (1991)

Much Ado About Nothing (1991)

Pericles (1992)

King Lear (1993)

The Tale of Cymbeline (1993)

The Taming of the Shrew (1993)

Measure for Measure (1994)

The Winter's Tale (1994)

Troilus and Cressida (1995)

Othello (1995)

Richard III (1996)

Hamlet (1996)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1997)

The Merchant of Venice (1997)

Henry V (1998)

Shakespeare's Greatest Hits (1998)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (1999)

Antony and Cleopatra (1999)

All's Well That Ends Well (2000)

King Lear (2001)

Richard II (2001)

The Tempest (2002)

Julius Caesar (2002)

King John (2004)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (2004)

Measure for Measure (2005)

The Merchant of Venice (2005)

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 (2005/2006)

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company (UK)

Troilus and Cressida (2007)

The Tale of Cymbeline (2007)

The Comedy of Errors (2008)

Macbeth (2009)

Richard III (2009)

Elizabeth Rex (2011)

Timon of Athens (2012)

The School for Lies (2012)

Henry VIII (2013)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (2013)

King Lear (2014)

Sense and Sensibility (2015)

at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and The Old Globe

Tug of War: Foreign Fire (2016)

Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VI, Part 1

Tug of War: Civil Strife (2016)

Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, and Richard III

The Book of Joseph (2017)

The Taming of the Shrew (2017)

Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2018)

Hamlet (2019)

Romeo and Juliet (2019)

Emma (2020)

Twelfth Night (2021)



The Regional Tony Award-winning theater produces a bold and innovative year-round season—featuring plays, musicals, world premieres, family productions, and theatrical presentations from around the globe—alongside education programming for students, teachers, and lifelong learners, and creative community engagement with artists and neighbors across the city.

Under the leadership of Artistic Director Barbara Gaines and Executive Director Criss Henderson, the Theater has evolved and expanded to present as many as twenty productions and 650 performances annually and has been honored with numerous national and international awards. Chicago Shakespeare is the city’s leading presenter of international work and has toured its own productions to five continents. It is dedicated to welcoming the next generation of theatergoers; one in four audience members is under the age of eighteen.

Recognized as a national leader by First Lady Michelle Obama in a 2014 White House ceremony, the Theater’s arts-in-literacy programs support the work in classrooms across the region by bringing words to life onstage for tens of thousands of students each year and through a variety of professional learning opportunities for teachers. The Theater’s free Chicago Shakespeare in the Parks program has fostered creative community engagement with artists across the city for more than a decade.

Located on Chicago’s iconic Navy Pier, Chicago Shakespeare’s campus features the Jentes Family Courtyard Theater, The Yard at Chicago Shakespeare, and the Thoma Theater Upstairs. Onstage, in classrooms and neighborhoods across the city, and in venues around the world, Chicago Shakespeare is a multifaceted cultural hub—inviting audiences, artists, and community members to share powerful stories that connect and inspire us.

Learn more about the Theater’s productions and programming at


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